There's no point in sugarcoating it. Three years ago, when Bill Gersitz was a freshman, the Medaille men's basketball team was, well . . .
"We were a laughingstock," Gersitz said early this week. "We were bad. I can't even explain how bad it was."
The Mavericks went 4-21 his freshman year. At least it was an upgrade from the previous season, when they finished 0-25. Gersitz, who didn't start at Kenmore East until his senior year, was not what you'd call a hot recruit. But he started right away at Medaille, which was a bad sign in itself.
"I don't think anyone around here even knew who I was," Gersitz said. "We were definitely a joke on campus."
How bad were they? The Medaille women's team was the big story on campus. Fans would pack the Sullivan Center for the women, a perennial power under Pete Lonergan. Gersitz said the men's team would be walking into the gym for the second game as most of the fans were walking out. They lost at Robert Morris (when St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt was still in charge), 109-36.
Gersitz considered leaving after his freshman season. But Mike MacDonald, who took over in the spring of 2006 after being fired at Canisius, promised Gersitz things were about to change, and that Bill would be a big part of it. Gersitz knows a thing or two about sticking it out. His family has owned a hardware store on Kensington Avenue on Buffalo's East Side for 72 years. He stayed.
MacDonald was true to his word. He brought in better players, and more of them. In 2006-07, Medaille won 11 games. ("I thought that was amazing," Gersitz said). People began hanging around after the women's games. Last year, the Mavericks went 15-13 and won a game in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference playoffs.
They were no longer a joke. They were a program, a source of pride on campus. This year, the Mavericks have taken it one step further. They've won 19 games, a school record at the Division III level. Last weekend, they clinched the AMCC regular-season title and will host the conference tournament this weekend. If the Mavs win Friday and Saturday, they'll earn an automatic berth to their first Division III national tourney.
"I still can't believe it," said Gersitz, who leads the Mavs in rebounds with 5.2 a game and is eight points from 1,000 for his career. He is one of three seniors (Jake Reisdorf and Bryan Legge are the others) on the Mavs. But he's the only player remaining from the 4-21 team.
"Bill has a natural leadership ability," MacDonald said. "He is just a funny, goofy guy, and the other guys enjoy being around him. When he is really wired and energetic, the team feeds off him. I think he's gotten everything he can out of his ability."
There are many ways to judge a college basketball player's career. Gersitz will never play on ESPN. He dunked for the first time last weekend.
But when you've survived the tough times and played the game for the love of it, you truly appreciate the privilege of being a college athlete. How many players help a team improve its record for four straight years, and finish it off with a school record and a conference title?
Gersitz, who has a major in sports management, doesn't know what he'll be doing next year. He might follow the family tradition and work in the hardware store for a while. But he'll always look back on his Medaille career with fondness.
Nowadays, everyone on campus knows the tall, genial, goateed center.
"I was talking with Coach Lonergan yesterday," Gersitz said. "I told him I've seen everything here."
Yeah. They actually have more wins than the women.